Losing my doomsday clock
to start graduate school

Published April 03 2017

When I was a sophomore at Wesleyan University, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter to become the 40th president of the United States. It was 1980, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock forward to seven minutes to midnight. In 1981, the clock was set to four minutes to midnight, and in 1984, the clock was set to 11:57 p.m.

During those years, I kept a clock in my bedroom that was set to the Doomsday Clock. My clock was a Russian pocket watch that my grandfather had given me. While the clock served an important notice of the state of the world, looking at that clock made me feel confined and limited in what I could accomplish.

I studied molecular biology at Wesleyan. When I graduated in 1983, I took my first job at Chiron Corp. With so much global uncertainty, I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, and I could not commit to going to graduate school. It was obvious to me that there was a world of discoveries that could be made in biochemistry and molecular biology, but I wasn’t entirely sure that there was going to be a world as we knew it.

I enjoyed the opportunity to visit a biotechnology center in a developing country in late 1985. It was there that I realized that my greatest contribution to the world might be through research and teaching.

Returning to the U.S., I decided that I would take the plunge and invest in my own education. I was working at the DNAX Research Institute when the Doomsday Clock was pushed back to 11:54 p.m. in 1988. Around that time, I lost my doomsday clock. While it had sentimental meaning as a gift from my grandfather, that clock was holding me back. I needed to suspend temporarily my disbelief in the future to create one for myself.

I was in graduate school at Stanford University when the Berlin Wall was demolished and the Soviet Union collapsed; the clock was pushed back to 11:50 p.m. in 1990 and 11:43 p.m. in 1991. There’s no question that the thaw of the Cold War allowed me to experience more space in which to express my creativity.

My son was in in college when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. The Bulletin pushed the clock forward to 11:57:30 p.m., which is the closest it has been to midnight in my lifetime. My son and most of the college students I teach don’t yet know what their life’s work will be and whether they will need advanced training. Many of them are uncertain about their future because of current events.

Just like Wesleyan students in the early 1980s, they want to be politically active. I support their efforts to agitate for speech, education, equality of opportunity, peace and freedom of expression. I remind them that a part of freedom of expression can be finding your own voice in the classroom and in the laboratory, thereby advancing the boundaries of what is known.

I am grateful that external forces in the late 1980s and early 1990s provided me with enough space to go to graduate school. But I could not have done so had I not lost my doomsday clock.

Charles Brenner Charles Brenner is the Roy J. Carver Chair and head of biochemistry at the University of Iowa. Views expressed are his own.